Websites and search engines share one main goal: providing good user experiences.
For Google, achieving this mission has meant continually raising the bar that digital content must meet to appear in search results – but recognition that not all site owners are performance experts has fuelled the creation of quality benchmarks they can optimise against.
Last year, Google unveiled the latest addition: Core Web Vitals (CWVs).
Far from just another set of guidelines, the new measures have gained significant weight since Google started incorporating them in mobile search rankings this summer. Following the news that CWVs will also be integral in gauging how desktop sites fare from 2022, they are becoming a more pressing concern for every brand and publisher on the web.
Boosting visibility and avoiding penalisation will soon depend on compliance with CWVs, so mastering the basics is essential.
New vital signs for site health
The launch of CWVs has shifted experience-centric signals from simply being a consideration in content audits, to becoming fully-fledged key metrics. Once mostly concerned with ensuring that user queries were matched with the most relevant results, algorithms now also assess whether sites meet defined experience expectations and apply rankings accordingly.
Specifically, this involves evaluating sites in line with user-based outcomes designed to cover each pillar of good online experience. The list is understandably varied and includes several areas that haven’t become core requirements: how long it takes for sites to load the first content element, render all visuals, and enable total interactivity.
But the three most important factors of note are those Google has established as active measures:
- First Input Delay (FID): How long it takes between user-initiated interaction and fulfilment of their request. For instance, this often includes actions such as clicking on a link, which Google states should yield a response within 100 milliseconds to count as sufficiently responsive.
- Largest Contentful Paint (LCP): Uses the largest element on a page to gauge loading performance. Sizeable content that successfully loads inside the acceptable remit of 2.5 seconds after pages begin to load is seen as essential for a positive and streamlined user experience.
- Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS): Quantifies the stability of sites by monitoring unplanned structural shifts while pages render, including moving text and links. Sites are scored on where they sit in a range that goes from no unexpected shifts, to one at most, ideally getting as close to 0.1 as possible.
What is the impact of CWVs?
Google’s objective is simple: promoting a positive user experience, especially when it comes to the need for speed. A long-running issue for mobile users, slow loading is an increasingly major cause of frustration for all web audiences, making it logical for Google to prioritise fast loading – and for site owners to follow suit.
But aligning with Google’s framework will call for sizable adjustment. Opportunities for publishers to improve their online position are greater, with sharp experience able to give sites a decided advantage. But it’s just as possible to lose their standing (as well as valuable organic web traffic), if competitors introduce changes that edge them ahead; even when overall content quality is equally high.
How can sites sustain their standing?
In short, staying on top will mean maintaining close watch over CWVs scores. Achieving that will call for a mix of proactive and ongoing steps aimed at optimising vitals and keeping them steady:
1. Prioritising site assets:
Images and fonts are often sticking points for websites, with big assets pulling down pages. It therefore pays to improve efficiency by conforming to the latest formats – such as JPEG 2000, JPEG XR, or WebP – compressing where possible, and slimming down heavy content.
For example, in addition to cutting unnecessary hero images, minimising use of backup fonts can reduce the chances of slow renders and layout shifts. Much the same goes for another well-known latency driver: third-party scripts. Although many are important for enabling ad serving, analytics, and social media connections, scrutinising scripts and plugins to identify those providing the highest value will help lighten sites by trimming unnecessary loads.
Adopting a global content delivery network (CDN) will allow brands and publishers to cache general and HTML content across international proxy servers and enhance their time-to-first-byte (TTFB); meaning loading is fast and smooth, wherever users are located.
2. Embrace selective loading:
While the name might sound counter-intuitive, implementing lazy loading will actually decrease initial loading time, improving a publisher’s LCP. This is because lazy loading only shows images once the user scrolls down to that section of the page. With a quick loading time, visitors are more likely to remain on the site. Similarly, applying code splitting can allow economic preparation of assets needed for specific pages, while reserving designated space for banner ads before they have loaded can avoid sudden moves that lead to accidental clicks and user irritation.
Additionally, extending efficiency measures to site structure brings equally valuable benefits. For instance, separating above-the-fold (ATF) and below-the-fold (BTF) content can significantly improve loading performance. There are several best practices that reduce ATF rendering time; including keeping above-the-fold elements under 14KB; minimising redirects and domains used; removing putting general purpose libraries such as JQuery on pause when they are not needed.
3. Track persistent performance:
As online content and ranking factors constantly evolve, it’s paramount for site owners to ensure an up-to-date view of their CWVs. Alongside Google’s own solutions, such as Search Console or Page Insights, intelligent tools are beginning to emerge that offer specific analysis against CWVs, including instant assessment of real user data and automated alerts for areas where content falls below key requirements.
Poor website performance is bad news on multiple fronts: eroding consumer trust, restricting monetisation opportunities, and negatively impacting the bottom line. CWVs, built to monitor and enhance site performance, should therefore be top of every priority list. By optimising their page against CWVs now, site owners can adapt and remain agile in the face of any future changes and initiatives implemented by Google.